Do Police Numbers Matter? (guest blog from Ian Leyland Merseyside JBB secretary)

30 Jul

The impact of Government cuts on Policing is now becoming apparent and across the country police numbers have fallen by over 5,000 to their lowest for over nine years. This has been exacerbated by a similar fall in Police Staff numbers and this trend is definitely set to continue.

The Government of course would try to convince the public that this does not matter and we had the usual response from a number within ACPO who claim that this has not impacted on the front line and that police performance is being maintained. That they seem able to say this with a straight face and without being questioned as why they have been leading organisations, which if their views are correct, that have effectively been managed so inefficiently is a mystery to me.

However, I would accept that what they are saying is actually true and at the minute performance is generally being maintained. Crime has not gone through the roof and public satisfaction remains reasonably consistent. I am not surprised by that statistic but I would question whether this is sustainable if police numbers continue to fall. My views are not those of an academic but the observations of a police officer with nearly 30 years experience working the front line and listening too, and representing those who do.

It may not surprise you that my conclusion is that police numbers do matter and I fully agree with Bill Bratton’s comments; “Cops Count”. However, I will try to explain why I feel that in time the recent falls in crime will reverse and as it reverses how and why this will actually became self sustaining and crime will increase.

During the early 1990’s the numbers allocated to patrol fell following a report by an academic that suggested that a patrol officer would walk past a crime every seven years. Whether the report was misinterpreted, or whether the author misunderstood the role of the patrol officer I am not sure but it had a significant impact on the thinking of Senior Managers. The value of patrolling a beat was called into question and consequently Force’s allocated increasing numbers away from patrol to specialised units. This also had an effect on those working within the service on the front line. Those on patrol felt undervalued and anyone with ambition was encouraged to leave patrol to work in squads and units. This impacted on the age and experience of those on patrol sections which fell significantly which meant that inexperienced officers on patrol had nowhere to turn for guidance and help.

In this environment the purpose of patrol became purely to respond to calls for service.

There was less opportunity for those on patrol to perform pro-active work and consequently crime started to rise. This then perpetuated the squad mentality, for example as burglary increased we set up burglary squads to deal with it, we set up robbery squads to deal with the increase in robbery’s, we set up car squads to deal with the increase in car crime. All the time we continually stripped the patrol sections to respond to crime and this consequently perpetuated the increase in crime, particularly the low level anti social behaviour which blights people’s lives.

I do not want you to think that I am questioning the value of the specialised units. They play a vital role and have professionalised our response to the investigation of crime which quite frankly was desperately needed. They target prolific offenders which can impact on crime prevention. However, predominantly their function is actually dealing with crime that has already occurred and has little impact in terms of the primary function of policing – the prevention of crime. That is the function pre-dominantly undertaken by officers on patrol and working in neighbourhood policing teams.

To clarify what I mean in some detail I will try and explain resource management of patrol sections.

On Merseyside we have often been held up as best practice in terms of the deployment of resources – ensuring that resources meet demand. As part of that process we have a Resource Allocation Model which focuses on demand as measured by calls for service. As well as responding to calls for service we also build in time for the bureaucracy that inevitably goes with that call. Finally we have a period which is referred to as “uncommitted time” but which should more properly be called “pro-active” time.

The way that resource model works is that the more time spent in the first two areas the less time there is available for pro-active work such as gathering intelligence, targeting repeat offenders, preventing anti social behaviour by patrolling known “hotspots” etc.

As police resources started to grow during the last Government the focus was placed on neighbourhood patrolling. At last it seemed that somebody grasped the concept that visible patrolling was not just about catching criminals but preventing crime from occurring by effectively working a beat. We also became more sophisticated at deploying resources to tackle problems and at measuring our performance through a series of performance indicators.

Yes we went too far in performance management and measurement where we lost discretion and the management of figures became all important, but let us also be honest, properly used as indicators rather than just measurement they do have a function in ensuring that officers are accountable for the work they do and for effective deployment of resources to tackle emerging problems.

The consequence of the above is that more resources where allocated to visible patrol, supported by increasing numbers of police staff and PCSO’s working in neighbourhoods. Consequently the amount of time that individuals had to undertake pro-active work started to increase. Crime did not collapse overnight but this style of policing led to crime starting to fall and consequently this became self perpetuating. As crime fell further more time became available for pro-active work and targeted operations and this led to a cycle of a year on year fall in crime rates.

Of course not everything was perfect. Bureaucracy increased significantly and computer systems were introduced which were not user friendly and certainly initially slowed the process down rather than speeded it. The custody process and CPS charging was a source of huge frustration and wasted huge amounts of time particularly when out of hours and officers spent many hours on the telephone waiting for a decision that would have previously took a custody sergeant a matter of minutes. Despite these problems overall it is indisputable that police performance improved. All the evidence indicates that crime fell year on year and public satisfaction increased, these being the only important measures as to the effectiveness of policing.

In terms of the future we are now of course reversing the trend. Despite assurances that the front line will be protected the reality is that this is impossible. The numbers on patrol are starting to fall and consequently officers are finding that their workloads in responding to calls are increasing. Neighbourhood Teams are reporting that they have less time to concentrate on their neighbourhood and are increasingly being asked to back fill for absent response colleagues. Slowly this will impact on the amount of time available for pro-active work. The cycle of falling crime will start to reverse and this will also become self perpetuating. It will not be an explosion in crime but it will more likely become a year on year increase.

The Government of course are hoping that they can prevent this by freeing up time spent on bureaucracy. How successful they will be on this we cannot be sure but as you strip out back office functions even if you reduce bureaucracy an increasing burden falls on the patrolling officer.

The feedback I am receiving from those I represent is that in two years there has been no discernable difference in the bureaucratic burden that is placed upon them.

Of course Governments, and unfortunately now ACPO, take a very short term view on these issues. They rely on the fact that the cycle of crime changes slowly – “if it doesn’t happen on my watch it is someone else’s problem”.

However, those of us on the front line do care. We are worried about the future and we do believe that police numbers matter. We want the public to hear our views and consider them. If they agree with us, which I believe the majority do, then they should ensure that they are also engaged in this debate by contacting their MP’s and ensure that their concerns are addressed. The future of British Policing relies on it.

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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Uncategorized


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